20 May 2010

"You NEED to try that beer?!?"

Time for a rant on a favorite gripe of mine.

There are folks who wonder why I'm not on BeerAdvocate or RateBeer or similar websites.  I occasionally glance at them to do research.  But there's an atmosphere prevalent at many such sites that irritates me, and it's best summed up by this type of inquiry that pops up commonly on such sites and forums:

"Can anyone tell me where I can find [Very Specific Beer, Usually Limited Production/Release] in [my area]?  I need to try this beer."


No, no no.

You WANT to try this beer.  Unless you are somehow being financially compensated for your tasting notes, or you're doing research and development for a brewery, or your family is being held hostage until you drink this beer in front of the kidnappers, or it's on the checklist of the next TV reality show race, you don't "need" to try any beer.  Maybe it would be nice, but life goes on.  Life is too short to worry about such middling details.

It's nice to have goals.  And Lord knows, I've done my share of saying to folks "You really should try this beer!"  And I'm not going to pass up an opportunity to sample certain beers if they cross paths with me.  But when I see the "worst" of the "must have this beer" folks, I am distinctly reminded of a certain stereotype, and not a flattering one.

In 1991, Dr. Uta Frith presented a paper to the British Psychological Society, part of a series focusing on Asperger's Syndrome, then a relatively new diagnosis of a form of autism that has since received wider publicity.  Her paper drew parallels between victims of Asperger's--characterized by unusual, narrow, and obsessive interests which can affect communication, imagination, and social interaction--and hobbies such as birdwatching and "trainspotting."  Now, "trainspotting" is not simply having an interest in trains; it's compulsively checking off the numbers of locomotives seen on a checklist, perhaps traveling to other rail locations just to seek out specific locomotives. This leads British rail enthusiasts to loudly proclaim "I am NOT a trainspotter!!" if such is insinuated in conversation; it's possible to be a rail historian, photographer, or travel enthusiast without keeping a checklist of locos seen, just as one can walk through or volunteer with the zoo or aquarium without tabulating which animals one has seen.

Of course, this paper received widespread coverage in the British newspapers under the headline "Train spotters 'may suffer from autism'" (scan of said articles provided upon request).  And, of course, I had the pleasure of reading it while I was in the U.K. ...... traveling about British Rail, visiting many steam excursion and "heritage railways" for special behind-the-scenes tours, talking with the museum curators and restoration experts.  I think that article came out the day I took a trip through Kent to the Kent & East Sussex Railway, then detoured to Folkestone where they were holding a railway festival that included rides on the steep 3% grade from Folkestone Harbour to the mainline railway station, a line that is now history and torn up.......

Other examples cited by Dr. Frith:  "a man who knew all there was to know about 50 types of carrot, one who collected details of light fittings in trains and one who learned the colours of the doors of all the magistrates' courts in his area. When he was asked why he didn't collect the door colours of juvenile courts, he said these bored him to death."

The parallels of this syndrome are many.  Ever seen the obsessive Civil War re-enactor that can tell you the complete biography of the soldier he's portraying?  Look at bird-spotting, comic-book collecting, Beanie-Babies collecting (does anybody even DO that anymore?), Japanese anime fans (otaku, which literally translates to "obsessed")............  and, yes, beer-list checking.  When beer aficionados publicly proclaim a "need" to try a very specific beer that 99.98% of the public has never heard of, when they travel an hour or more just to sample one specific beer (as opposed to, say, partaking in a beer festival with 40 "new" beers), or they pay as much as $100 for one small bottle of beer and its shipping, they're crossing the line from hobby/interest to obsession.  At least that's how it looks to the rest of the world.  And even though I've never seen anybody of this ilk pursuing such an obsession to get drunk, that's also (unfairly, I agree) how it's going to look to others out there.

See also anorak --a term formerly applied to trainspotters that has recently been applied in Britain to the stereotype of "real ale twits"...........

μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan = "nothing in excess") : supposed inscription on the Temple at Delphi, according to Pliny the Younger


JohnM. said...

What an odd post Alex. I confess I can't really quite tell what it is that so irritates you about this.

Collectors pay vast sums of money all the time for rare or limited release coins, stamps, wine, paintings... even fungus and fish eggs. So if someone also goes to great lengths to obtain a bottle of Kate the Great and/or Dark Lord.... the idea may seem crazy to you and me (and believe me, the very thought of what some people will do to get DL on Dark Lord Day is absolutely mind boggling), but I can't say I'm bothered by the idea. It's not something I would choose to do, but hey... one man's trash is another man's treasure I guess.

On the other hand, I think it's kind of fun to try different beers, and it certainly sounds as if you do too. In a perfect world it would be nice if I could obtain Hopslam, KBS, Pliny, Sculpin and Speedway Stout right here in Baltimore, but alas, for now I can't and so I have to drive down to DC or up to Philly if I want to try them. Sure, there is plenty of good beer right here in Baltimore, but sometimes I'm in the mood to try something new that I can't get locally. I don't need to try those beers (frankly I have never met anyone who "needed" or had to try a new beer.... they may say something along those lines, but in my experience they're simply expressing a deep desire or hope to try a particular beer).

Also, not to bust on you too much about this, but there's something I tell all my Beer Advocate buddies that I think you might approve of. A lot of folks new to beer advocate express the concern that they don't think they'll ever get to try Westy 12, Kate the Great, Earthmonk, and many other rare beers. My advice to them is to relax about that; that the BA community is very extensive and generous, and that it's only a matter of time before they attend some tasting or BA gathering where someone pulls out a bottle of Westy 12, Dark Lord or Abyss (I can say from actual experience that I have gone to a number of tastings where some generous soul has busted out bottles of these rare, great beers).

In the same vein Alex, I would simply suggest that you not let this sort of thing bother you. If someone is obsessed with the idea of obtaining an M or whatever the latest white whale du jour is, let them go for it. It's no skin of my nose or yours, and I wish them nothing but luck in their quest (no matter how crazy I may think their efforts are in obtaining said white whale).

It's just beer Alex.... we all have our own ways of enjoying and/or appreciating it.

Andrew said...

Very perplexing post indeed. I'm with JohnM. It seems you're mostly quibbling with the semantic use of "need" when someone means "want," particularly if it happens on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. Umm, OK.

When someone tells me they really liked a beer, I make a note to try it. If I have a forum to ask other beer drinkers where I might find that beer, I probably wouldn't hesitate to do so. Whether I use the word "need" or "want" is rather immaterial. The point is, I just heard of a new beer I've yet to try, and the audience with which I'm speaking can probably help make that happen.

I agree that people who make beer drinking a competition are pretty annoying, but ultimately: a) who cares?, and b) they're a pretty small population.

Maybe I'm missing something in your argument.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

As I said, I've seen this. Many times in other fields and in beer. I've been a person that danced close to this, and have close friends that dance the lines continuously.

I've also seen/known the extremes. Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons" (or his real-life alter ego). Anime otaku. The aforementioned Civil War re-enactor. Fisherman. Railroad photographers and railroadiana collectors. A video-game collector who paid way too much for a prototype Atari unit built for a DeLorean joint marketing proposal.

When you point out the "obsession" to the ones that truly deserve a potential Asperger's Syndrome analysis, you get one of two responses: "Huh? What are you talking about?" and if not that, defensive rationalization that no, they're not obsessed, they're just... well....

I still stick to my weeding suggestion: if you can walk into Max's (or RFD Washington or the like) and declare that you can't find anything to drink, or you're complaining because the beer you want isn't on cask or fresh enough, you're being so focused on a mental "checklist" or standard that you're over the proverbial edge. Well, that or you're broke. <:-)

david.m. said...

" or your family is being held hostage until you drink this beer in front of the kidnappers"
In all fairness, this did happen to me once. The kidnappers only demanded I drink a Michelob Ultra though.
I miss my family.

JohnM. said...

To DavidM.

Very sorry to hear about your family, but in my humble opinion you made the right choice. A man has to draw a line somewhere, and asking someone to drink mich ultra, even to save their family.... well that's just... that's just.... unspeakable.

Graham Green said...

I'm worried about your obsession with obsessions! :-)

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Graham: Touche.